Montreal feminist theatre's mentorship program gives young women tools to find their voices

For the all-woman team at Imago Theatre Company, the #MeToo movement validates the work they've already been doing in Montreal's theatre community for more than 20 years.

Imago's Artista program open to women 16 to 21 curious about creative expression

Imago Theatre Company, which aims to promote women's stories in theatre and in the greater community, includes, left to right, Samantha Bitonti, Joy Ross-Jones, Sophie Gee and Erin Lindsay. (Nantali Indongo/CBC)

It certainly feels like there's a shift underway in North America when it comes to fighting back against gender-based violence and abuses of power.

For the all-woman team at Imago Theatre Company, situated in a beautifully lit, cozy office on St-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal's Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, that kind of resistance represented by the #MeToo social media campaign validates the work they've already been doing in Montreal's theatre community for more than 20 years.

Imago's mandate is to empower women, and promote equity and justice.

From artistic director Micheline Chevrier down, the administrative team is all female.

The works Imago produces are women's stories, mostly written by women, with majority-women casts and production teams.

Imago nurtures that model: It has a mentorship program committed to empowering future generations of young women, called Artista.

To be part of Artista, you can be an aspiring actor or performer — or not: participants just have to be between the ages of 16 and 21, and have some curiosity around creative expression.

And it's free: When money is a factor, "the same class of people are going to keep on having access to the performing arts, and the diversity won't happen," says the program's co-founder, Joy-Ross-Jones.

For 15 weeks, participants meet for a meal in a safe and creative space to share ideas and experiences with other women.

Three professional mentors from the local theatre community accompany them throughout, sharing their theatre knowledge while giving the necessary space for participants to be experts, too.

The idea is about helping young women find their voice, value it, and learn to take their space in society.

Imago Theatre Company has a call-out right now for a new Artista cohort.

I thought it would be a good time to ask the women at Imago to reflect on what some are calling a cultural shift as a result of the #MeToo campaign — a movement that began with women from the arts and entertainment industries pushing back against the sexual abuse they've endured and against the men and the institutions that have had so much control over their destinies.

Imago's take on #MeToo

Erin Lindsay is an artistic and administrative associate at Imago Theatre, a performer and aspiring playwright.

"It's incredible that through the advent of social media, and the fact that everybody has a platform to speak out, traditional calcified power structures can be taken down by an individual. I think that's pretty radical and amazing."

Erin Lindsay, left, and Sophie Gee are emerging Montreal artists working with Imago Theatre Company. (submitted by Joy Ross-Jones)

Sophie Gee is an artistic and administrative assistant at Imago Theatre, an alumni of the National Theatre School directing program and Black Theatre Workshop's artist mentorship program.

People in theatre really, really want to be there, and because of that, power can be abused so easily. I'm an emerging artist, and I hear a lot about people who encounter harassment and abuse or witness it. It's wonderful that people have been brave and are finally saying, "No, this is unacceptable." And I think that gives other people courage, if they witness it, to say, "That's not cool."

Samantha Bitonti is an Artista alumna, a recent graduate of Concordia's theatre program and has worked as an assistant director with Repercussion Theatre.

I've been quite fortunate in my learning and growing ... to have a place like Imago that supports women in theatre but — like, my dad? The fear he has for me going into this industry is something that that generation grew up with so predominantly. And so, in this new age and for my new generation to come up and maybe not have that experience at all, to not be afraid to be a woman, to be who I am, to be sexy when I want to be sexy or not, and that's my prerogative.

Joy Ross-Jones is Artista's program director, an actor, puppeteer, improviser and theatre educator from Venezuela

"This is my body, and this is what comes with the territory of having this body" has been culturally accepted that that's something you have to deal with for a really long time. [But] we're starting to make abnormal these things that have been normal.  The more we talk about how slippery the slope is, the better equipped we are to have the conversation together and support one another and be brave together.  

Is Jane Fonda right - we're paying attention because it's white celebrities speaking out?

Joy Ross-Jones is the program director for Artista, Imago Theatre's free mentorship program for young women aged 16 to 21. (Nantali Indongo/CBC)

Joy: The systems of dominance are definitely still in place. It's an extension, unfortunately, of white feminism.  People are starting to talk about intersectional feminism in a much more visible way, which is awesome, but we're still in a place where these white voices have a lot more power.

Does having a woman boss make a difference?

Erin:  People in decision-making positions have a lot of sway, so those roles need to be more representative of the society we live in, or voices are not going to be heard.

Joy:  Just as an actor might feel uncomfortable coming into a rehearsal hall where they know they've experienced some sort of gendered verbal abuse, that person might not want to say anything because their position is tentative or that they're replaceable. Someone at a very high position of power might feel the same way.

Sophie:  I think somebody proposed that if all of the men who were fired in Hollywood were replaced by women, we'd see real change.

Nantali: Or will we? Women helped Donald Trump get elected, despite the allegations against him. How do we educate women to change this attitude of feeling disposable or for women leaders to ruffle feathers because abuse is abuse is abuse.

Samantha Bitonti, a former Artista participant, is grateful for the experience of getting and giving support to other creative women. (Nantali Indongo/CBC)

Samantha: We need to rethink power, bring in benevolence. Yes, I can have a high status, but I can be open-hearted and willing to listen and generous. I think this switch has to happen with how we think these higher-up positions have to be. It doesn't have to be that way!

About the Author

Nantali Indongo is CBC's Arts & Culture contributor and host of The Bridge. Follow her on Twitter @taliindongo.